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Thu December 20, 2012
Music News

Joe Strummer's Life After Death

Originally published on Thu December 20, 2012 11:37 am

The world has been without Joe Strummer for a decade. The co-founder and lead singer of The Clash died Dec. 22, 2002, of an undiagnosed heart defect at just 50 years old. Yet even his most topical songs continue to resonate.

The band's biggest single, "Rock the Casbah," released in 1982, could as easily have been about last week's news from Syria. A Middle Eastern sherif, or king, orders his air force to bomb his own subjects, who are rebelling. Like the best Clash songs, it manages to be a pop tune and a protest song at the same time.

"There's a warmth to the Clash's music which I think is part of their great appeal," says Chris Salewicz, author of a 600-page biography called Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer.

"There's actually great melodies, and there's a great immediacy about it, combined with Joe's lyrics," Salewicz says. "People talk about The Clash as a political group. ... I saw them as a satirical group. Their function was really like something like the underground press used to be, to point out, to make fun, really, of institutions and authority."

In an interview not long before his death, for the documentary Westway to the World, Strummer said much the same thing.

"Politically at that time with Thatcher in Britain, and Reagan in the White House, it wasn't looking too great for the left," Strummer said. "And we were always on the left. But, having said that, we didn't have any solution to the world's problems. I mean, we were trying to grow up in a socialist way to some future where the world might be less of a miserable place than it is."

Joe Strummer came from a middle-class background. Born in Turkey in 1952 and the son of a British diplomat, John Graham Mellor changed his name to Joe Strummer in his 20s as a joking reference to his self-taught guitar style. He started forming political opinions early, as a student at the London boarding school he was sent to at 9 years old.

"Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom," Strummer said in Westway to the World. "But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control. And it didn't have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realized that you either became a power or you were crushed."

Strummer was sometimes criticized as an underclass wannabe. But Salewicz says Strummer came by his beliefs honestly, after dropping out of art school.

"He only did the first year. And then he becomes a squatter, squatting in unoccupied houses. And I think that's a kind of great leveler," Salewicz says. "He was given a lot of left-wing indoctrination by various squatting kings at that point. But I think it's a very democratic society. Everyone really is the same ... because they're having a really hard time. They're reduced to the real ocean floor of society."

The Clash's first single, "White Riot," released in 1977, was a call to white youths to rise up in protest, the way Strummer felt that black youths in the U.K. were already doing. Strummer's social consciousness continues to incite musicians today, including Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, U2 and The Wallflowers. In the 2008 song "Constructive Summer," The Hold Steady shouts out its hero: "Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer!/I think he might have been our only decent teacher."

"The Clash seemed like real people, and they were for the people, and that was obvious," says Tad Kubler, lead guitarist of The Hold Steady.

"[Strummer] had a real signature style, not just of playing, but the physical element of it too," Kubler says. "It was always moving. His sense of tempo — meter — was phenomenal." Referencing the insistent dat dat dat dat rhythm of the song "London Calling," Kubler says, "If you look at him, that's not what he's playing on guitar, that's what he's doing with his body."

Written following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the message of "London Calling" echoes in today's concerns about climate change: "The ice age is coming/The sun's zooming in/Meltdown expected/The wheat is growing thin."

Speaking with NPR in 1999, Strummer said he just wrote what he had to.

"My face is very deep in the mud," he said. "I can't see the trees or the woods or the valley or the hills. You can only follow what's on your mind. In fact, a song is something you write because you can't sleep unless you write it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ten years after his death, the anniversary is this coming Saturday, the name Joe Strummer still resonates with musicians and fans around the world. Strummer fronted what his label dubbed, The Only Band That Matters: The Clash. Strummer sang lead and wrote most of the songs, songs spiked with pointed criticisms of authority and injustice.

Tom Vitale reports on Strummer's influence.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Joe Strummer's topical songs written three decades ago continue to resonate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

VITALE: The Clash's biggest single released in 1982 could have been about last week's news from Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

THE CLASH: (Singing) Rock the casbah. Rock the casbah. The sharif don't like it...

VITALE: In Rock the Casbah, a Middle Eastern sharif or king orders his air force to bomb his own subjects who are rebelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

CLASH: (Singing) The king called up his jet fighters. He said you better earn your pay. Drop your bombs between the minarets down the casbah way...

VITALE: Like the best Clash records, "Rock the Casbah" manages to be a protest song and a pop song at the same time.

CHRIS SALEWICZ: There's a warmth to The Clash's music which I think is part of their great appeal.

VITALE: Chris Salewicz is the author of a 600-page biography called "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer."

SALEWICZ: There's actually great melodies and there's a great immediacy about it, combined with Joe's lyrics. I mean, people talk about The Clash as a political group. Now, I never saw The Clash as a political group. I saw them as a satirical group. Their function was really like the underground press used to be. You know, to point out and to make fun really of institutions and authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS ENGLAND")

CLASH: (Singing) A South Atlantic wind blows, ice from a dying creed. I see no glory. When will we be free? This is England. We can chain you to the rail. This is England. We can kill you in a jail...

VITALE: In an interview not long before his death, for the documentary "Westway to the World," Strummer said much the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOCUMENTARY, "WESTWAY TO THE WORLD")

JOE STRUMMER: We didn't have any solution to the world's problems. I mean, we were trying to grow up in a socialist way to some future where the world might be less of a miserable place than it is. But we did try to put out minds and pose those sort of questions, whether the good that use that was. We did try.

VITALE: Joe Strummer was from a middle-class background. The son of a British diplomat, John Graham Mellor was born in Turkey in 1952. He changed his name to Joe Strummer when he was in his 20s, as a joking reference to his self-taught guitar style.

When he was nine years old, his parents sent him to a London boarding school. There, Strummer said, he began to form his political opinions.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOCUMENTARY, "WESTWAY TO THE WORLD")

STRUMMER: Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom. But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control. I quickly realized that you either became a power or you were crushed.

VITALE: Strummer was sometimes criticized as an underclass wannabe. But biographer Chris Salewicz says Strummer came by his beliefs honestly after dropping out of art school.

SALEWICZ: Then he becomes a squatter, squatting in unoccupied houses. And I think that's a kind of great leveler - it's a very democratic society; everyone really is the same. And the reason they're the same is 'cause they're having a really hard time. You know, they're reduced to the real ocean floor of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RIOT")

VITALE: The Clash's first single, "White Riot" released in 1977, was a call to white youths to rise up in protest the way Strummer felt that black youths in the U.K. were already doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RIOT")

CLASH: (Singing) White riot, I want to riot. White riot, a riot of my own. White riot, I want to riot. White riot, a riot of my own. Black man got a lot of problems but they don't mind throwing a brick. White people go to school where they teach you how to be thick...

VITALE: Strummer's social consciousness continues to incite musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, U2, and Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers. The Hold Steady wrote a tribute to Joe Strummer in a song called "Constructive Summer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CONSTRUCTIVE SUMMER")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer. I think he might have been our only decent teacher. Getting older only makes it harder to remember we are our only saviors. We're going to build something this summer.

TAD KUBLER: The Clash was - they seemed like real people and they were for the people. And I hope that that's what we convey, as well.

VITALE: Tad Kubler is the lead guitarist for The Hold Steady. Kubler says what inspires him in the music of The Clash is the beat.

KUBLER: The great thing about Joe Strummer is he had a real signature style, not just of playing but the physical element of it too. You know, with his...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

KUBLER: ...left foot always going. You know, it was always moving. And it was really sense of tempo, meter was phenomenal. And that's why you get songs like "London Calling," and the dant, dant, dant, dant. If you look at him, that's not what he's playing on guitar. That's what he's doing with his body.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

CLASH: (Singing) London calling to the faraway towns. Now war is declared and battle come down. London calling...

VITALE: The message behind "London Calling," echoes today's concerns over global warming just as much as it did in 1979 when it was written following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

CLASH: (Singing) The ice age is coming. The sun is zooming in. Engines stop running. The wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error but I have no fear 'cause London is drowning and I - I live by the river...

VITALE: In 1999, Strummer told NPR he just wrote what he had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

STRUMMER: My face is very deep in the mud. You know, I can't see the trees or the woods, or the valley or the hills. You can only follow what's on your mind. In fact, a song is something you write because you can't sleep unless you write it.

VITALE: Joe Strummer continued losing sleep and writing songs about things he cared about, until he died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect on December 22, 2002. He was just 50 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OR GLORY")

CLASH: (Singing) Now every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world, end up making payments on a sofa or a girl. Love...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OR GLORY")

CLASH: (Singing) ...hands that slap his kids around, 'cause they don't understand how death or glory, becomes just another story. Death or glory, becomes just another story. In every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock and roll, grabs the mic to tell us he'll die before he's sold. But I believe in this and it's been tested by research... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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